Lassana Diarra leads five outstanding performers of the Ligue 1 season so far
We are almost halfway through the Ligue 1 season, and the winter break is looming. Time for praise, then.
Apart from the obvious names like Thiago Silva, Zlatan Ibrahimovic or Hatem Ben Arfa, there have been some more-unexpected great performances this season in France's top flight. Here are the top five outstanding performers so far in Ligue 1:
Lassana Diarra | 30 | Midfielder | Marseille
No one saw this one coming, for sure. For 15 months, due to a conflict with former club Lokomotiv Moscow, Diarra didn't play competitive football. People had forgotten about him and his career looked doomed. But the Parisian possesses great mental strength; he never gave up, convinced Marseille to take a gamble on him in the summer and is now Ligue 1's best player outside of Paris Saint-Germain.
At 30, Diarra is back to his best, the level that made him a starter at Real Madrid. He sits in front of the back four for Marseille, he dictates the game, tackles, wins the ball back, goes forward, can score -- like his screamer against Troyes -- or set up his teammates. He does everything. He has been so impressive this season that Didier Deschamps has called him back into the France fold, five years after his last international appearance. So steep has Diarra's rise been, he could start for France at Euro 2016 on home soil.
Cheikh Ndoye | 29 | Midfielder | Angers
Before this season, Ndoye had only played in the French second and third divisions. With Creteil, he scored 21 goals from midfield in Ligue 2 spanning his final two seasons with the club. Angers saw the huge potential of this Senegalese international and brought him to Ligue 1. He hasn't disappointed.
Ndoye has been outstanding and is part of the reason why Angers are third in the table. At six-foot-three, the 29-year-old is a giant who is a threat on set pieces but has more to offer than just aerial ability. He is strong defensively and is a box-to-box midfielder, good on the ball and hard to stop. He has three goals and one assist in 12 games this season. He can be aggressive as well, as we saw when he was sent off vs. Troyes in September.
THE BEST OF ESPN FC
- Bell: Liverpool fans make themselves heard
- Cox: Leicester improving | Why Poch should stay
- Okwonga: Man United's market | City's title hopes
- Laurens: PSG's pre-UCL issues | Hertha's curse
- Highlights (U.S. only): Stuttgart 1-3 BVB
- FC TV: Champions League W2W4 | LVG wrong
- News | Transfer | Toe Poke | Fantasy | FC TV | Podcast | MLS
Vincent Koziello | 20 | Midfielder | Nice
Koziello is my coup de coeur -- my firm favourite -- so far this season. He only turned 20 in October and it's just his first Ligue 1 campaign, but his potential is immense. He is a small competitor at five-foot-six and 128 pounds, but his vision, his touch, his movement off the ball and his intelligence are all well above average.
Nice manager Claude Puel has always been good with youngsters, but Koziello is a rare breed, a Xavi type of player in a way. The France under-21 international has two goals and two assists in league play so far this season, and has been excellent in Nice's midfield with Jean Seri and Nampalys Mendy. What I like about him, apart from all his footballing qualities, is that he is an intelligent boy who passed his Baccalaureat exams and is not getting carried away with his breakthrough season.
Benjamin Moukandjo | 27 | Forward | Lorient
At this stage of the season, you would expect Ibrahimovic, Edinson Cavani or even Michy Batshuayi to lead the goal-scoring charts. Instead, they are all behind one man: Moukandjo. With 11 goals (and an assist) in 15 league matches, the Lorient striker has a strike ratio of 0.73 goals per game. Only Ibrahimovic has better numbers with 10 goals in 10 games, while Cavani is scoring at a rate of 0.53 goals per game and Batshuayi 0.67.
No one expected Moukandjo to score so much. He netted only eight times last season with Reims and scored just five goals in 2012-13 with Nancy. Lorient bought him for next to nothing in order to replace Jordan Ayew, who was sold to Aston Villa for €12 million in the summer, and the Cameroon international has more than met expectations. At 27, his pace, eye for goal and intelligent runs have made him a big hit so far this season.
Wahbi Khazri | 24 | Midfielder | Bordeaux
Not much is going right at Bordeaux this season, and Khazri is probably the only positive thing about Willy Sagnol's team right now. Khazri has been the technical leader of this side, scoring four goals and adding a further six assists his 13 Ligue 1 matches this campaign. He is very gifted on the ball, and possesses an impressive work rate. At 24, the Tunisian international still has room for improvement in his game, specifically in terms of maturity.
Julien Laurens is a London-based French journalist who writes for ESPN FC and Le Parisien. Follow him on Twitter: @LaurensJulien.